Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A Conversation with Thyra Heder

Good morning, Thyra.  I am happy to welcome you to Librarian’s Quest and to express my thanks to you for spending time with me and my readers today.  It’s been absolutely gorgeous here in southern Michigan as autumn brings in the cooler temperatures at night, clear blue skies, brisk breezes and a blanket of color in our trees.

Since the focus of our conservation today revolves around an animal companion I thought you might like to take an imaginary hike with me and my one-year-old chocolate Labrador, Mulan.  We enjoy walking through the woods, taking in the sights, sounds and scents.  So put on your comfy shoes or boots, grab a jacket and let’s get started.

Sounds great! My lab/rott mix Toby would like to follow Mulan to the stinkiest spots to roll in.

Mulan would love that! I, of course, might not be too happy with a stinky dog in the house but that's why water hoses and shampoo were invented.

In your Author’s Note at the close of the book, Alfie (The turtle that disappeared), (Abrams Books for Young Readers, October 3, 2017) you inform readers about your Alfie, the length of time Alfie has been a part of your family, your niece’s fascination with this turtle and your friend Nia’s turtle Max that seems to have an affinity for escaping.  Every time I read this book, the brilliance of two perspectives brings the story together flawlessly.  Did you always know you wanted to tell this story from both Nia’s and Alfie’s point of view?

Originally I wrote this story from an omniscient narrator and it wasn’t really working, because neither Nini (Nia’s original name) nor Alfie had much of a personality. Also, in this first idea, the turtle was gone for 30 years which ended up feeling very sad rather than fun.  I went to mope to my agent, Stephen Barr, which is what I often do when I’m stuck, and the two of us spent an hour basically just making each other laugh until suddenly one of us shot the firework of the idea of the change of perspective.  I honestly am not sure I can take credit for it, because I don’t have the memory of how it happened, but the second it was said aloud I knew it was right. All of my favorite novels involve switching character perspectives, so it became my mission to make this work in a picture book.  (In case you are interested, two of my favorites are To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf and Another Country by James Baldwin)

I am curious about whether you did any extra research or if it was pure observation of Alfie and Max so you could channel your inner turtle to write his point of view?

I’ve actually never met Nia’s Max! She’s just told me about his various escapes. I have followed my real Alfie around my parent's house a lot over the years, so mostly this was from memory. (Btw he really does love to hide in my mom’s shoes, get stuck under the radiator, and swim in the backyard koi pond)

How did you arrive at the name Alfie for your turtle and for the title of this book?

When I was five years old, I was obsessed with the book Esio Trot by Roald Dahl, which is about a man in love with his downstairs neighbor who is devoted to her pet tortoise, Alfie.  So for my sixth birthday, I got Alfie!

Your artwork for this book is utterly charming, elevating the text beautifully.  Did you have the text completed prior to the watercolor painting and inking?  Did the illustrations come first?  Or is it a combination of both? I am wondering about your process for this book.  

First of all, thank you! My process for every book begins with an instinct for what I want to paint, and then the writing follows as a way to justify that instinct.  It often is a painfully long process of figuring out how to construct the story with a lot of sketching of different dummies and rewriting and tearing my hair out (any of my friends will tell you that a perennial part of my writing process is wanting to throw the whole thing out).  But yes, I had finalized the text before starting to paint my images.   
However, after painting the final art for Alfie over many months, I reread it with the text and hated it.  I had spent so long creating the world in the art that when I looked at the writing again, it seemed to have zero of the same care and personality.  My editor at Abrams, Erica Finkel, is a saint.  She patiently sat with me in an empty office at 8pm before my book was supposed to be sent to the printer, and worked with me to rewrite every line of Alfie’s perspective.  For that, I am forever grateful, because the book got so much better.

You have included many wonderful extra details in your artwork?  What is one thing you hope readers will notice? (I noticed something entirely new when reading Alfie (The turtle that disappeared) again today.)

That makes me so happy! My favorite thing as an illustrator is to try to build enough into the art that those new surprises can happen.  I hope readers will notice how the walrus wears his pants.

I have an idea of why the rug pattern was chosen for the endpapers but I would love to know your reason for placing it there and for adding a portion of Alfie on the closing endpapers.

Well if I can earnestly and politely answer, “I don’t know, what do you think?” I’d love to hear your idea! To be honest, I was very stumped about the endpapers and they were due the next day and as I was falling asleep I just started talking to myself, I thought “okay, you have the book in your hand, you are looking at the cover, you open the book...what do you want to see?” and the rug popped in my head and felt good, so I did it.  I have spent many hours watching my Alfie crawl across carpets so adding him in the back came naturally and seemed to continue the story in a nice way.

It crossed my mind that the rug was a focal point for the first time Alfie and Nia were together with him roaming free. Also my thoughts on him being on the closing endpapers suggest he might be going on another adventure.

The use of a white canvas with the ink drawings of Nia and Alfie within the book and on the book case (case cover) is marvelous.  Were they always wordless and why or why not? Also, is there a particular reason Alfie is slightly airborne on the front of the book case?

Haha, I can’t help but feel that some of these questions are revealing that I sometimes don’t know why I make my own choices!  Initially I wanted the break to be two blank white pages, but, thankfully, Erica really pushed me to come up with something intentional for that moment. I knew it had to sort of exist outside of the story while relating to it, and I came across an old page of ink doodles in my studio with a little girl's silhouette and felt it click.  Alfie is floating on the case cover because it made me laugh.

I think it's going to make everyone laugh, Thyra.

Is the setting, the home and backyard, from your imagination or is it an actual place?

The setting is a mashup of my apartment in Brooklyn and my childhood home in Cambridge.

I know readers will want to know more about your Alfie, Thyra.  What kind of turtle is Alfie?

Omg, Margie, I AM NOT SURE!  We were told he was a Chinese Pond Turtle at the pet store, but he doesn’t look much like the photos.  It is actually also debateable whether he is, in fact, male.  I figure it doesn’t matter at this point? Alfie is just Alfie.

How old (approximately) is he now?

33 years young!

What is Alfie’s favorite food?

Alfie actually seems to prefer turtle food to the lettuce/carrots/guppies/crickets/grubs/hamburgers I tried to feed him when we were younger.

Thank you for chatting with me today Thyra.  It’s been a pleasure to learn more about Alfie (The turtle that disappeared), your process and the real-life Alfie.  I, and other readers too, certainly hope you have another project in the works.

To learn more about Thyra Heder please take a moment to visit her website and her blog.  You can get a sneak peek at her work space on her blog.  If you want to learn more about Alfie (The turtle that disappeared), the book, please follow the link attached to the title to read my blog post.

Also you can follow me on Facebook.com/thyrahederbooks for behind the scenes process photos and events.

Thyra Heder is the author-illustrator of Fraidyzoo and The Bear Report. In a starred review, Kirkus praised her latest picture book, Alfie, saying, "Heder takes readers on a journey about what it means to be a child with a new pet who sometimes loses its luster but never its worthiness of love." She is also an illustrator and storyboard artist whose clients include Kenneth Cole, Vogue and Coca-Cola. She graduated from Brown University in 2006 with a degree in art semiotics. She lives in Brooklyn.

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